Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cultural Pollution

Oscar Wilde said something like "England and America are two countries separated by a common language."

We've had a couple of Australians staying with us this week and we've been learning a lot about their strange species of English. As you would expect, we've had more than a few moments of cross-cultural confusion. Like when they ask me when I'm leaving for uni (short for university, which I would just call 'school') or where the toilet is (not in the bathroom, 'toilet' is the bathroom). Also, there was a remark about how Australians can't buy alcohol at grocery stores, they have to go to the bottle-o. Yup, bottle-o..

Now, confusion about where to find a 'toilet' is pretty innocuous, even kind of cute, but, according to our resident Aussies, cross cultural confusion can be dangerous when it comes to knowing how to get help in an emergency. Apparently they have a different emergency code. They don't dial 9-1-1, they dial 0-0-0 ('triple 0'). Sadly, demographic most ignorant of the 'triple 0' convention is not tourists, but Australians who watch American movies. Dialing 9-1-1 instead of 0-0-0 has been such a problem that if you call 9-1-1 in Australia now, you'll get the 0-0-0 emergency response operators. Talk about high-stakes cultural pollution..

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What does a dog say?

I'm sure you all remember when you were little kids and your parents asked you a whole series of questions like "what does a dog say?", "what does a duck say?", etc. Well, Agathe Jacquillat and Tomi Vollauschek, graphic designers who met at the Royal College of Art in London while taking a post-grad course on Communication Art and Design, have taken that childhood game a step farther, possibly in another direction.

Jacquillat and Vollauschek are responsible for the delightfully intriguing and addictive site bzzzpeek , where they have collected voice samples of children from around the world responding to questions like "what does a dog say?". The best thing about this is that their responses are only occasionally "woof woof". Russian dogs say "guff guff", Japanese dogs say "wua wua", and goodness knows what Korean dogs say. Korean onomatopoeia tends to be the strangest for American English listeners.

All this serves to bring home a point that I haven't made yet, one that is often overlooked in Cognitive Science; language is not just for communicating, it's also for perceiving. It's fair to assume that Russian dogs bark like American dogs (they have the same vocal apparatus), so it must not be that American dogs make "woof woof" sounds any more than Russian dogs make "guff guff" sounds. Rather, where American speakers hear "woof woof", Russian speakers hear "guff guff". The language(s) we speak influence what we are able to hear (and communicate). For more on this topic, Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Karen Mattock.

I really appreciate this sort of work because it marries principles of good design (simple intuitive complexity) with novel, unpretentious human-sized science.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

a closer look

Eyes are important. Not only are they the primary portal through which we perceive the world (~30% of cortex is involved in vision), the eyes can reveal the interests and intentions of others. It's no mistake that the eye has been referred to as "the window to the soul" since Biblical times.

The other day my professor made the point that eye-contact is not a property of the individual. Eye-contact emerges from interactions between individuals. A little bit of close observation reveals that eye-contact is not just a social phenomenon; it's also a powerful social tool.

Have you ever tried to catch someones eye? Or how about in movies, when lovers/enemies lock eyes before they kiss/fight? Or when a tour guide advises you "not to make eye-contact" with vendors in a foreign country?

When someone is lying they are often shifty-eyed and we look askance at them. According to, to 'look askance' at someone is to "disapprove", while 'askance' simply means "sideways or obliquely". We show our disapproval by withdrawing access to eye-contact.

Eye-contact in humans is fun, but it has also proved to be an interesting tool for analyzing the interactions of non-human primates. Dr. Christine Johnson (UCSD) has been studying a triad (group of three) of bonobos (monkeys, above.) at the San Diego Zoo. They don't talk and there is no way to 'look inside' of their heads to see what their thinking, but they are obviously social and cognitive. So Dr. Johnson decided to code her data for "brightness", the degree to which each bonobo is facing the others (i.e. access to eye-contact). Her data reveal that access to eye-contact ("brightness") in the group is reliably correlated with patterns in their social interactions.

While I'm not really doing justice to the topic of eye-contact, or even to Dr. Johnsons research, for that matter, I hope you see what I mean.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Define "You"

I've been working in a lab that is interested in deixis, among other things. Deixis is, essentially, context-dependent linguistic reference. So any word that would be entirely ambiguous out of context, like 'now', 'then', 'this', 'that', 'it', 'there', 'me' and 'you' are all deictics.

These words (or rather, how people use these words) are interesting because
a) the speaker must take a personal perspective to use them (if you are 'there', I must be 'here'), and
b) they are used to talk about people, places, and things (both present and absent, concrete and abstract) in terms of how the speaker conceives of them,
c) they are unintelligible to non-humans (though several animal species, notably chimps, are capable of recognizing themselves, abstract symbolic reference is out of their reach), as illustrated below.

PS - Thanks for the cartoon, Dr. Creel!

Monday, September 29, 2008

What YouTube Means About YOU

This quarter I am taking my second ethnography class. I'm interested in using ethnographic method for my own research (both now and in the future). According to Wikipedia, ethnography is a
"genre of writing that uses fieldwork to provide a descriptive study of human societies. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other."
In practice, ethnography is learning how to look at, talk about and transcribe data (in this case, pictures, audio, and video) in ways that reveal patterns, regularities, causalities, etc. that tell us something about the system.

While ethnography has traditionally been a tool for anthropologists, both anthropology and ethnography are now being used to look at cognition and cognitive systems (yay!).

Here's a really brilliant presentation, given by Michael Wesch to the Library of Congress, showing what ethnography can reveal about the cultural and social properties of YouTube.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Two by Two" or "Why One is Not Enough"

A lot of Cog Sci research is focused on figuring out the basic mechanisms of sensation and perception, mostly because we need to understand the basics before we can make real claims about more abstract, interesting, human-type cognitive activities. This is all just to preface the next bit.

As far as I can tell, our bodies know that 'two are better than one', especially when it comes to perceiving and navigating through space. Think about it. At an obvious and general level, we have two feet to walk and two hands to manipulate things. On a more cognitive neuroscience-y level, we have two eyes that see slightly different views of the world (allowing us to perceive depth more easily), and we have two ears that hear two different sound profiles of the world (allowing us to locate the sources of sounds). This all makes sense.

Here's where things get strange. We have a nose. We have two nostrils. Recently, researchers at Berkeley found that this is a big deal (in terms of spatial perception). Despite the fact that humans don't depend on olfaction (smell) in the same way that other mammals do (see dogs, cats, rats, etc), these researchers found that humans are perfectly capable of following a scent trail (see image #1, one the left is a dog following a pheasants scent trail; on the right is one of the subjects in the study).

Not only that, but they used a 'nose prism' (row f in image #2, don't ask) that allowed the researchers to control whether the participants were breathing air from one or two airstreams. Turns out that participants breathing two different airstreams (which means that each nostril got slightly different air/scent inputs) were both faster and more accurate in their scent-tracking than those who only smelt air from a single stream! I think that it is crazy that we (our brains) are capable of detecting differences between our nostrils (that's like 5mm, nothing!).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In a Nutshell

This is just a little somethin I whipped up for the Cog Sci student conference. It's watered-down acrylic and pen on the back of a Trader Joe's bag.